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Eating into childhood

Eating disorders are appearing in ever-younger children. Incredibly, many seven-year-old girls say they wish they were thinner.

by: Brenda Entwisle | 16 Feb 2007

Ooh, I was so bad today. I had a chocolate.’

Sound familiar? It could be any one of us chewing the fat with innumerable friends. It's the good-bad dichotomy of food that hooks straight into our feelings of well being.

The trouble is that this comment doesn't come from a diet veteran, forever wishing she could shed a couple of kilos. It comes out of the mouth of an eight-year-old girl, a picture of prepubescent perfection.

And she's not alone. In a recent study published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, almost half of the 200 five-to eight-year-olds surveyed wanted to be thinner. Isolating just the seven-year-olds, an astounding 71 percent of the girls wanted to be thinner. That's a large serving of body unhappiness in girls so young.

Although society's obsession with thinness and our own attitudes towards food and eating all play into an eating disorder, it is the underlying emotional issues that eating disorders are really about, and over- or under-eating food is really just the symptom.

A need for nurturing, a need for attention, a need for acceptance and an inability to be able to express these and other emotions are at the core of eating disorders. If an unhealthy attitude to food and eating is picked up in the early stages, it is far easier to treat effectively.

In South Africa, those diagnosed with eating disorders are definitely getting younger and younger, says Yael Kadish, a clinical psychologist who is very active in the field of eating disorders.

'There's heightened awareness of body image in girls as young as seven or eight compared with 10 years ago. Where before the youngest girl to manifest with a full-blown eating disorder was 13 or 14, we are now seeing girls from age 12.'

Taking into account our own complex attachments to food, we might need to remind ourselves what a normal attitude towards eating should be: Eating when hungry is a fundamental. Eating food from the various food groups, eating food to satiety and eating food for pleasure are all part and parcel of normal childhood eating behaviour.

So what is driving the shift in age boundaries for food fixation?

The factors are as complex as the answers are lacking, but psychologists do agree that societal influences play a significant role. Not only are little girls expected to dress like 20-year-olds, their mothers are too. There is no room left for the matriarch, for women to be revered for qualities beyond their looks.

Children’s role models have moved beyond the family and community to the world at large, represented through the media as a culture of celebrity and youth.


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